The closer you look, the more cleaning you will do...

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to carry out some routine cleaning on a dress sword in the Silentworld collection (SF001088). As ever, what appeared routine ended up being almost anything but. The lecturers at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation always tell us ‘the more you look the more you see’ — you can look for as long as you like and still discover more little nuances of an object once you get your hands on it. I have given a brief overview below of a ‘typical’ conservation process – with all its atypicalities!

Figure 1: Cleaned sword in place. Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.


SF001088, as it is affectionately known, is a Royal Naval Officers dress sword made by Gieve, Matthews and Seagrove. Gieve, Matthews and Seagrove were separate entities who came together in 1904 to provide uniforms and outfitting to the British Royal Navy and Army (ANMM 2018). Today the company is known as Gieves & Hawkes, and still trades from their headquarters at No. 1 Savile Row, though their fare has changed somewhat, as they now sell high-end men’s tailoring.

The sword has been in the collection for several years, displayed under very tightly controlled temperature and relative humidity conditions. However, objects do not exist in a stable state, no matter how much conservators wish that they did! Upon a walkthrough of the collection, it was discovered that there was a slight powdery accretion on the sword: specifically on the lion’s head pommel and on parts of the leather scabbard. Upon taking the sword down and returning it to my workbench, the classic, aforementioned edict came to life: ‘the more you look the more you see’. Namely, this strange accretion had also gathered in the shagreen (more on this later) grip of the hilt as well. Upon unsheathing the sword, some spots of corrosion were noted on the blade. The mechanisms by which metals corrode are often complex and multi varied, but generally speaking, controlling the relative humidity and temperature is the easiest way to maintain stability in metals.

As this sword and scabbard had lived its previous 10 years in almost impeccably controlled temperature and relative humidity, there had to be another reason for the occurrence of corrosion, which would require some investigation.

In conservation, nothing is certain or definite, and every object is different. Even objects that are mass-produced have then had different lives once they left the manufacturer, and these multitudes of winding paths and laneways lead each object to a very different place.

On a more practical and less theoretical level: something did need to be done. So a condition report was constructed, and a treatment proposal written. Upon its being signed off on, I was free to begin the treatment process – knowing that as always, it will expand out and change as needed to fit the object.

Figure 2: Tools used in conservation process. Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Blade Conservation

I began with cleaning the corrosion products off the blade, with an aqueous solution that is easy to use in the current conservation setup we have (which is a desk covered in Mylar). I quickly discovered that it was best to apply the solution with cotton buds, leave it for 15 or so minutes, and then head in to manually remove the corrosion products. This is best achieved with dental tools, carefully making sure to remove only the corrosion, and not scratch the surface of the blade.

Following this process, it was immediately clear that a skin was coming off before my tools could touch the corrosion products. It was quickly ascertained that the blade likely had a wax coating applied, and so the decision was made that this should be removed. In discussion with fellow conservator Daniel Schwartz, I learned that occasionally wax coatings can degrade and react with the metal that it coats, and create an acid (Selwyn 2004, p. 36). This acid can then cause the metal to corrode, which may answer the question of how the sword had developed some corrosion despite its textbook display conditions.

But other potential cause for the corrosion was the leather scabbard. If it was acid tanned, then perhaps the close contact between the blade and the acid tanned leather also led to corrosion of the blade.

The wax was removed from the length of the blade in due course, after some experimentation with different solvents.

Once the corrosion products were manually removed and cleared, and the wax coating removed[f][g], the blade treatment was complete! A mylar sheet, a type of inert plastic, was cut to shape and size of the blade, and inserted on either side into the scabbard, to create a barrier between the leather and the blade, in case that was the cause of the corrosion.

Figure 3: Before, Sword blade. Detail: Corrosion product on blade.
Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Figure 4: After, Sword blade. Detail: Cleaned corrosion.
Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Handle Conservation

Now, onto the handle. A green powder had gathered over the divots and worked lines of the loop guard . It had to be carefully removed. This was removed with stiff and soft brushes, and toothpicks, and then wet cleaned with solvents.

Figure 5: Before Treatment: Sword Handle. Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Figure 5: Before Treatment: Sword Handle.
Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Figure 6: After Treatment, Sword handle. Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Figure 6: After Treatment, Sword handle.
Images Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

The grip handle is shagreen, which was often used with dirks and other blades due to its grip-ability (Silverman p. 65). Shagreen is typically shark or ray skin, and had long been used in Japanese and Chinese made items, including boxes and furniture, before it was introduced to Europe through Portuguese traders from Japan in the 16th century (Guth 2016, p. 66).

The powdery accretion needed to be removed for both aesthetics and to ensure the shagreen stayed in good condition. Although it did not appear to have damaged the skin, it was nonetheless removed with soft brushes and whittled toothpicks.

Figure 7: Before Treatment, Sword grip. Detail: Shagreen with powdery accretion. Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Figure 7: Before Treatment, Sword grip. Detail: Shagreen with powdery accretion.
Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation. 

Figure 8: After Treatment, Sword grip. Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.

Figure 8: After Treatment, Sword grip.
Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation. 

Scabbard Conservation

Lastly, but not least, the scabbard! The powdery accretion had gathered in the linework on the brass sections of the scabbard, while the leather directly surrounding the brass also had some powdered areas. This was cleaned, as before, with toothpicks, dental tools, and soft brushes — though the leather did present an interesting challenge. As it needed to be dealt with a more delicate touch, a conservation grade adhesive putty was purchased, which lightly removed any loose accretions without causing any loss to the leather.

Once the cleaning was finished, the sword and scabbard were thoroughly photographed, and it was replaced back upon the wall.

Figure 9: Before Treatment, Scabbard. Under magnification. Image: Heather Berry/Silentworld Foundation.